NEW DELHI: With the government warning of "disastrous consequences" if a landmark bill for providing free and compulsory education to children aged 6-14 was not passed, the Rajya Sabha Monday gave the measure its unanimous approval -- but only 56 members were present at the time of voting.
"We are sitting on a great opportunity. We need to grasp it. If we lose it, the consequences will be disastrous," Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sibal said while winding up the five-hour debate on The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Bill.
"We are dealing with an issue that will determine the course of India in the 21st century," an impassioned Sibal maintained as he sought to answer criticism that the bill was high on intent but low on delivery systems.
"We must move forward by sending a strong message to the world and to our children that we are determined to provide them quality education," the minister added.
"We have 20 crore children in this country. Ten crore are out of the educational system. We have to get them back to school. When you have a dream, you don't build a garden so that people can walk. You look at the sky to get inspired," contended Sibal, who utilized to the hilt his eloquent skills as a renowned lawyer.
"I agree it is a difficult task. Together, we have to do it, we must do it and we will do it," he added.
"It is not an easy task to embark on a national enterprise but we have to do it. Is it easy to tackle climate change? Is it easy to counter the global meltdown? But we have to tackle them instead of sitting back in picking holes (in the solutions).
The debate on the bill threw up the unlikely scenario in which it attracted support from across spectrum but with member after member -- even from the treasury benches -- finding what they termed glaring lacunae in the measure but knowing fully well that their suggestions would not be considered by the government but would only be a matter of record.
The Bhartatiya Janata Party (BJP), on its part, had no option but to support the bill as it had brought a constitutional amendment in 2002 making education a fundamental right. The present bill seeks to give effect to that measure.
Attendance was thin throughout the debate, with 71 MPs present when the debate began.
At one time, the front row, which has 20 seats -- had only five of these occupied -- by Sibal and central minister Farooq Abdullah, D. Raja of the Communist Party of India and by Najma Heptullah and S.S. Ahluwalia of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The leader of the house, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, did not even make a brief appearance, while leader of opposition Arun Jaitley of the BJP was more often out than in.
Sibal, of course, sat through the entire five-hour debate, except for a five-minute break at 5.45 p.m.
The bill had been introduced in December 2008 by Sibal's predecessor Arjun Singh, who was dropped after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recast the government after the United Progressive Alliance's resounding victory in the April-May general elections.
For Arjun Singh, it must have a bitter-sweet moment as he briefly watched the Rajya Sabha proceedings from a wheelchair stationed near the back benches.
The bill, which now goes to the Lok Sabha for consideration and approval before it is sent to the president for assent, will go down in parliamentary history for more reasons than one.
Apart from the railway and general budgets for fiscal 2009-10, the bill is the first legislation to be passed -- and that too unanimously in the UPA's second coming.
This apart, this is the first time since December 2008 that the treasury and opposition benches have been united. The last time around, they had come together to pass a bill to create a National Investigation Agency (NIA) and a bill to amend the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.
The government had brought the two measures in the wake of the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks that claimed the lives of over 170 people.
Funding for the implementation of the bill's provisions will be sought outside the Rs.44,528 crore (Rs.445.28 billion) that Finance Minister Pranab Kukherjee allocated for school and higher education during fiscal 2009-10 till March 31, 2010.
"As regards finances, we are on the job and will seek finances in the revised demand for grants. There is no way we will not have the required finances," Sibal maintained.
"We will also work out the share of the central and state governments," he added.
While four hours had originally been allotted for the debate, this eventually stretched to five hours, with another 30 minutes being taken up on procedural matters after Sabil had finished his reply and before the bill was passed.
There were 28 speakers, including Sibal, during the debate. Of them, the minister quite naturally spoke the longest for 40 minutes. Following him was the BJP's Najma Heptullah, who spoke for 35 minutes. Santosh Bagrodia, the Congress' lead speaker, declaimed for 20 minutes, while P. Rajiv of the Communist Party of India-Marxist got 14 minutes.
This, the remaining 24 speakers got 201 minutes among them or an average of 8.3 minutes per MP.